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Dave Bartholomew | The importance of company and product names

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I used to attend the Snow Industries of America trade show annually. At each show I noticed new exhibitors, almost always in small booths selling a single product. At the next show, most of those exhibitors were absent, but new small companies filled the void they left.

Often these new exhibitors showed products remarkably similar to what other now-extinct exhibitors had shown before them. Plastic ski boot scrapers, for example, were extremely common.

I made a hobby of noting how these small companies named themselves. Typically it was something like “Barb and Frank’s Maine Plastic Ski Boot Scraper Company.” The question that such names always brought to mind was, what do they hope to do with this company? What will their next product be? What is their exit strategy?

Because of the chosen name, almost any new product will be outside of the scope they have defined. A metal boot scraper would not fit. A plastic ski pole holder would not fit. A left-handed widget would be well beyond the scope of their defined universe.

And what if they are successful and decide to sell the company to people not named Barb and Frank, or to people that do not live and work in Maine?

Their name is both highly descriptive and dangerously restrictive.

Names, for products and companies, are very important, and worthy of more consideration than many people give the topic. Some factors to consider:

♦ The name of a company needs to fit what you plan to do when the company is young, but also needs to fit how you hope to grow.

In the example above, what are the logical extensions of the product line after the plastic boot scraper? If the next new product might be a metal boot scraper, and then a plastic ski pole holder, then maybe the pivot point of the product line is ski accessories. If the second product is a plastic cap used to recap an opened wine bottle, then maybe the pivot point is plastic accessories. In any case, the trajectory of the product line plays a giant role in choosing an appropriate company name.

♦ The name of a product will have an unchangeable and immediate impact on a potential customer. For example, a product name that uses letters and/or numbers, like X398, suggests something technical. This might be a worthy name of a new electronic device, but a poor name for a new perfume. Conversely, a name like Petunia would not be a good name for a spark plug.

♦ For both product names and company names, the more descriptive it is the harder it is to defend in terms of intellectual property. If “Mary and Frank’s Maine Plastic Ski Boot Scraper Company” sued “Mary and Frank’s Vermont Plastic Ski Boot Scraper Company” for trademark infringement, they would have a more difficult time prevailing than if they had chosen a less descriptive name like “Xarnac Innovations.”

♦ Including a person’s name in the company name makes more sense if a key strategy will be a focus on personal relationships, like professional services. But tying a company’s brand equity to a specific person makes transferring that relationship to other individuals more challenging.

If in reflecting on the name you have chosen inspires you to consider a change, a phased approach might work. “Barb and Frank’s Maine Plastic Ski Boot Scraper Company” might become “Barb and Frank’s Ski Boot Scraper Company” (dropping the reference to Maine and plastic), then “The Ski Boot Scraper Company.”

 

Dave Bartholomew and his wife Nancy are retired and living outside of Leavenworth. The last 14 years of his career were served as a business adviser to leaders around the world. He and Nancy also owned Simply Living Farm, a retailer of goods for a sustainable life. Prior to that he was CEO of several manufacturing companies in the outdoor recreation industry. He has authored three books, written numerous regular columns and taught at many universities.